Paris (CNN) —The birthplace of high fashion, Paris gave the world designers like Coco Chanel, Yves Saint Laurent and Christian Dior, who in turn gave the world some of the most enduring iconography in fashion history, including the LBD, or little black dress.
But there are two other French personalities who aren't getting as much recognition in the fashion and retail worlds as they should, as they're probably more relevant to the average family than Chanel and Dior.
At Le Bon Marché department store in Paris, which was founded in 1852 and holds the title of the oldest and oldest department store in the world, Aristide and Marguerite Boucicaut pioneered retail concepts that many people probably don't value.
The couple were revolutionary in this rapidly changing industry called retail.
Founded in Paris in 1852, Le Bon Marché is the oldest and oldest department store in the world.
Yvan Matrat/Courtesy of Le Bon Marché Margem Esquerda
The practice of returning merchandise for a refund? Le Bon Marché claims the concept.
Mail order catalogs at Ikea and J.Crew?
In fact, the Boucicauts published the world's first department store catalog and included fabric swatches that customers could use to choose the color and material of their clothing. They allowed – and enabled – buyers to customize their designs.
What about the now ubiquitous modern practice of free shipping on orders of $25 or more? Arguably, Le Bon Marché was also a pioneer in this department, introducing home delivery 160 years ago for mail orders over 25 francs.
While the retail industry has changed a lot since 1852, Le Bon Marché has maintained a strong position, evolving in response to industry changes and shopper tastes.
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We are revolutionizing the way we shop
It's a Saturday afternoon in the women's department of upscale Left Bank department store in Paris, and shoppers are performing time-honored rituals: examining designer dresses, flipping price tags and clutching blouses around their necks to check themselves in the mirror.
Shoppers looking for bargains browse store shelves; the tactile ones let the materials slip through their fingers, while the shop windows without a busy schedule walk around the store and look at the goods.
It's a ubiquitous scene that could be repeated across the city at Galeries Lafayette, Printemps or any department store in any other city in the world.
Le Bon Marché presents itself as the little big department store, a play on words in French (le petit grand magasin).
Stephane Muratet/Cortesia of Le Bon Marché Left Bank
That said, were it not for the innovative concepts developed at Le Bon Marché, today's contemporary shopping experience might not be as easily recognizable.
First, let's start with the one stop shop. Finding everything under one roof, from trousers to sheets and crockery to hairdryers and lipstick, was an idea widely popularized in Le Bon Marché under the leadership of the Boucicauts.
If you needed an umbrella in the 19th century, you went to an umbrella store. The same applies to women's clothing or shoes.
Most stores specialize in a single item, explains Eléna Fertil, manager of cultural events at Le Bon Marché, and all products were stocked behind the counter.
This way of obtaining items might seem romantic, but it was also a bit of a hassle.
"The customer didn't see anything. If he needed pink sheets, he had to ask the clerk, who would remove the pink sheets he had," said Fertil.
When Aristide arrived at the small shop at the corner of Rue du Bac and Rue de Sèvres in 1852 as a partner of the Videau brothers, he introduced modern, little-known practices that exposed wares for the public to browse and touch. He also pegged the goods at a fixed price.
“Before, the price was up to the seller, so the same product could be sold at two different prices to two different customers”, explains Fertil.
In the past, when customers entered a store, it was natural for them to leave with a purchase. But at the Bon Marché, admission was "free".
Customers were invited to come in and browse at their leisure. No purchase required. And if they had buyer regrets - too small, too big, too expensive - they could exchange or return the item for a full refund.
Goods were also priced at a lower profit margin (bon marché is French for "good deal"), but inventory turns were high.
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A meeting point for the female bourgeoisie
Along with the rewriting of commercial laws, the settlement would become a "haven of freedom and pleasure" for the women of the Parisian bourgeoisie, writes Monica Burckhardt in„Le Bon Marché Rive Gauche: Die Erfindung des Kaufhauses“,Published in 2013 and commissioned by Le Bon Marché.
There, independent of their husbands, rich wives could spend all day daydreaming and socializing.
"Back then, cities were male spaces," adds Jan Whitaker, a North Hampton, Massachusetts, consumer historian who authored the 2011 book"The World of Department Stores."
"For an upper-middle-class woman, the streets were a vulnerable place. So department stores became women's spaces, and that was very important.”
The business model is still about attracting as many people as possible and getting them to stay.
Archives of the Left Bank of the Goods Market
The business model was the same as it is now: attract as many people as possible from across the socioeconomic spectrum into the company – and have them stay.
"It was a luxury for the masses," Whitaker said. “These were grandiose buildings to which the lower classes would never be invited.
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patrons of the arts
The Boucicauts also knew the importance of customer loyalty and time spent in the store.
After the Videau brothers purchased and assumed full ownership in 1863, the couple expanded the premises and added new features and services that were considered pioneering at the time: a reading room for the husbands, a living room with free food and drinks, a billiards room, hairdresser, travel agency and live shows.
The Boucicauts knew the importance of customer loyalty and time spent in the store.
Archives of the Left Bank of the Goods Market
Another claim to fame? Gustave Eiffel was one of the engineers involved who helped design the steel structure of the building.
But one of the Boucicauts' greatest legacies, and one that is still particularly honored to this day, is their patronage of the visual arts.
Avant-garde, the couple opened an art gallery in the department store in 1875, housing their works and a large audience for artists who had been shut out of the Salon de Paris—the official art exhibition of the Academy of Fine Arts in Paris, wrote Burckhardt.
Stroll through the store today, 145 years later, and you'll discover that paintings, photographs, drawings and sculptures - a curated collection of contemporary art spanning the past 30 years - line the walls of the store and are strategically placed amidst the luxury goods.
In 2016, the store invited Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei to launch a new arts program to honor Aristide's creation of the annual January White Sale.
As the story goes, Boucicault walked around and was dejected to see the shop so empty after the Christmas break. After looking out the window and seeing the snow, he decided to remove all the white goods from the store and have a big sales event, explained Fertil.
Continuing that tradition, the store launched a program every January inviting international contemporary artists to create bespoke pop-up installations for Le Bon Marché.
Your only request? It's about the white color. Everything else is carte blanche for the artists, as the saying goes.
"These exhibits are really meant to be gifts for our visitors," said Fertil. “The idea is that, when strolling through the Bon Marché, they are moved by the artist's vision. A few loyal customers visit our exhibitions every year, but we know that others who have come just to shop will be pleasantly surprised to discover exhibitions like this one."
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Le Bon Marché's name change
A rebranding in 1984 included aligning the brand with the high-end luxury market.
Archives of the Left Bank of the Goods Market
Today, Le Bon Marché describes itself as the little, big department store, a play on French words (le petit grand magasin). Compared to Printemps (founded by a former Bon Marché employee) and Galeries Lafayette, arguably the prettier of the three, Le Bon Marché is more manageable in size and lends itself to a "stroll" or slower stroll.
"It was designed to inspire people to walk around the store like we do in the streets of Paris to discover new things, be amazed, stop, have a coffee and relax," added Store Style Added Director Jennifer Culliver.
Indeed, as in the streets of Paris, a stroll through the department store means strolling past architectural gems, especially under the dozens of skylights, originally designed to flood the store with natural light and highlight the merchandise.
Today, Boucicaut's understanding of lighting and product marketing is an indispensable part of retail layout and design.
The department store now offers some of the most exclusive luxury brands in the world.
Gabriel de la Chapelle/Cortesia of Le Bon Marché Rive Gauche
after beingAcquired by the LVMH Group in 1984, Le Bon Marché was renamed to appeal to the upscale luxury market.
The department store now owns some of the world's most exclusive luxury brands, but it's also trying to stay relevant by acquiring new and emerging brands and entering into exclusive collaborations with designers, says Culliver.
In-store personalization services invite shoppers to personalize their sneakers and jeans; Cooking classes and demonstrations are held regularly throughout the year; and artists are invited to dialogue with the public.
All strategies are aimed at attracting walk-in customers at a time when e-commerce and online retail giants like Amazon have completely transformed the way consumers shop.
Department stores across the United States are faltering, but Le Bon Marché hopes to entice some of those international visitors for a different shopping experience.
Unlike Macy's, the well-known American department store that existscloses its gatesAcross the country, Le Bon Marché is not struggling to survive.
The competition isn't suffering either: Galeries Lafayette opened a new location on the Champs-Elysées last year, while this spring LVMH is reviving the historic La Samaritaine building as a mixed-use development that will bring a new luxury department store to the city. Lux.
Whitaker points out that it's a key demographic that keeps traditional department stores like Le Bon Marché from becoming obsolete.
"Tourists are very important for the survival of department stores in Europe. They are people who have time to explore and spend money on leisure."
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- Nordiska Kompaniet, Stockholm. ...
- APROPOS, Hamburg. ...
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|Founded||October 28, 1858 in New York, New York, U.S.|
|Founder||Rowland Hussey Macy|
|Founded||1852, in Chicago|
|Defunct||September 9, 2006|
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